When I started dating my wife back in the mid-1990s, we used to go with her grandma on Sunday nights to a bingo hall run by the Sons of Italy in Arnold, Pennsylvania. It was always fun, and often a spectacle. Men and women were seated at long banquet tables throughout the hall, a dozen bingo sheets laid out before them and color-coded bingo daubers clutched in their hands. Cigarette smoke always hung in the air above the crowd like exhaust from a factory stack, and small children ran up and down the aisles looped on candy and caffeine.
Diehard players brought plastic boxes that contained their supplies, mostly bingo chips or ink-filled daubers, and they often had an assortment of lucky artifacts — rabbit’s foot, troll doll, or some other charmed trinket. My wife’s grandmother, Lucy, had her own selection of knick-knacks that she set up before the start of each game. What I recall most was an old Yoda action figure who was missing his burlap cloak, so he stood there in what looked like brown pajamas watching over her cards.
In Bingo by Andrew Miksys, the Washington state photographer provides a candid look at not only the people who frequent America’s bingo halls, but also the social systems that such places engender. In his statement on the series, he explains his intimate connection to the subject matter:
In 1981 my father started publishing the Bingo Today newspaper in Seattle. It was filled with photographs he took of bingo players and stories about the prizes they won. Advertising for local bingo halls paid the bills. My mom wrote the horoscopes. I was introduced to the world of bingo when I was eleven and my parents took me to a bingo session for kids. I won $300 … Bingo seemed all right to me. In very little time it had bought me fortune and the envy of all my friends. When I got my driver’s license at sixteen, my dad gave me the job of delivering the Bingo Today to bingo halls and convenience stores all around Seattle. Ten years later I returned to visit my parents for Christmas and decided to revisit the some of the bingo halls with my camera. The managers and regulars greeted me warmly and I began photographing for this project. Over the next six or seven years I expanded the project and photographed in many other bingo halls around the United States.
The experience Miksys recalls speaks to the sense of community that a bingo hall can offer. It’s what Lucy, my wife’s grandmother, loved most about our weekly ritual. She caught up with friends, gossiped, showed off her granddaughter, and introduced me to all the people that she knew. It was a total departure from my normal social experiences, which is what made it so fun. That’s how I really got to know Lucy, and that’s how she got to know me. We also discovered that we both shared a love for swearing and crass jokes.
The bingo caller, an older man who sat at a table on a stage at the front of the hall, spoke into a microphone and called the numbers after pulling white ping pong-style balls from a circular wire cage. Anytime one of us was in a drought and none of our numbers were being called, Lucy or my wife or I would yell “Shake your balls!” at the bingo caller and start laughing.
After a few trips to bingo I felt more comfortable being myself around Lucy. I even started to understand the gossip, shaking my head in agreement as some of the blue-haired ladies griped about their neighbors, Social Security checks, or arthritis pain. Even though Lucy primarily enjoyed the social scene at the hall, that’s not to say she wasn’t thrilled when she occasionally won big and got to yell bingo while shaking her winning card in the air. On those nights we all lucked out, as the evening usually ended with a celebratory visit to King’s Restaurant for dessert, her treat.
(Photograph: Andrew Miksys. Caption: Insert.)